For the past several weeks, there’s been a raging debate among pundits and political commentators about what lessons the American left can learn from Bernie Sanders’s defeat.
After Sanders dropped out in early April, I argued that his loss should discredit his campaign’s “political revolution” theory of victory, an approach centered on transforming the electorate by turning out habitual nonvoters. This “Marxist political strategy,” as I termed it, depended on the idea that Bernie’s social democratic policies could motivate young and working-class workers to go to the ballot box — not only winning the election but transforming the very nature of American politics.
On its face, this approach seems to have failed: It was Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who rode a multiracial working-class coalition to victory in the primary. And indeed, some observers in the media read the results the same way I did. But many of Sanders’s most prominent supporters, including the head of a left think tank and an editor of a notable left publication, continued to insist that he got it right.
The underlying thinking of the Sanders approach has failed repeatedly in recent years. It failed in the 2020 Democratic primary, in ways that have notable general election implications. It failed in the 2018 midterm elections, where moderate Democrats consistently outperformed progressives in red districts. And it failed in the 2019 British national election, which American leftists themselves set up as a test case for their theories of the US electorate.
What’s going on here, as an article in the flagship socialist magazine Jacobin helpfully concedes, isn’t really an argument about how to win electoral power. It’s an outgrowth of a theory of how progressive policy change happens. Many on the left believe only a working-class movement can win real policy victories; candidates who win with the wrong kind of supporters won’t be able to push through truly transformative policies.
Thinkers on the left are defending a dubious theory of how to win elections, in short, because of a broader ideology that demands they adhere to it. The real debate between left-leaning liberals and the socialist left is not so much about tactical electoral considerations as it about the importance of winning elections itself.
Yes, Sanders and the left’s theory really did fail
When I call the Sanders-left approach “Marxist political strategy,” I want to be clear on what that means.
Marxism, as formulated by either its many canonical thinkers or its modern academic exponents, is not a theory of winning elections. It’s classically concerned with describing how capitalism operates and what might cause the economic system to eventually be replaced.
What the Sanders team and his supporters in left media have done is take a key idea from the Marxist tradition — the idea that any meaningful challenge to entrenched inequality requires an organized, class-conscious workers’ movement — and applied it to the workings of modern American politics.
They believe that in a world of yawning inequality and neoliberal organization of the state, socialist policy has the ability to knit together a new political coalition. Young people, victims of the Great Recession and holders of massive student debt, would turn out in unprecedented numbers for someone promising to help them. The white working class, battered by globalization and a weak social safety net, can get over the racial hang-ups that made Trumpism appealing and join with nonwhite workers in coalition against the millionaires and billionaires.
This is the meaning of Sanders’s oft-touted “political revolution”: that his brand of class-conscious politics could transform the nature of the electorate by bringing in habitual nonvoters, including the young and economically disaffected, and by changing the class makeup of the Democratic Party’s supporters.
This did not emerge during the primary, to put it mildly. Rural and non-college white voters, a key element of Sanders’s strong 2016 performance that made the left theory plausible in the first place, preferred Biden. Sanders failed to make significant inroads with black voters, a key part of any multiracial working-class coalition. Younger voters actually made up a smaller part of the electorate in 2020 than they did in 2016.
Yet Nathan Robinson, editor of the left magazine Current Affairs, argues that this is not a problem for their theory — which was designed to apply only to the general election, not the primary.
“The whole theory the left had was not that the primary was easy to win, but that we would win the general election, because we would be given an opportunity to court independents and the politically disaffected—the kind of people who do not vote in party primaries,” Robinson wrote. “This is what we’ve been saying consistently.”
This isn’t exactly right, either as it relates to the Sanders campaign or even Robinson himself.
In an October piece titled “How to Get Bernie Sanders Elected President of the United States,” Robinson posted a question: “How, then, do we make sure that he gets the Democratic nomination?” His answer, it turned out, put the mobilization of nonvoters first and foremost.
“The success of Bernie Sanders is going to require a ‘nonvoter revolution.’ His appeal is, in large part, not to party loyalists, but to the 70+ percent of people who did not vote in the primaries last time,” Robinson wrote. “Part of your job, then, is to convince jaded nonvoters that Bernie’s candidacy is worth believing in, and then getting them to actually cast a ballot. For nonvoters, this is especially urgent, because many states disenfranchise people by setting absurdly early registration deadlines for voting in primaries.”
On this point, Robinson was in line with the candidate and his top surrogates. At a rally with Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made winning the disaffected central to her vision of victory. “The swing voters that we’re most concerned with are the nonvoters to voters,” she said. “That swing voter is going to win us this election and the general election.”
Sanders agreed. “Alexandria a few minutes ago made the point, and I want to make it again,” he said. “There are a whole lot of folks out there who have given up. ... We can win this Democratic nomination, but we can’t do it without increased involvement in the political process.”
This was not mere rhetoric. Ryan Grim, a reporter at the Intercept, wrote a lengthy feature in January on how the Sanders campaign premised its entire strategy on transforming the electorate along class lines.
“Interviews with dozens of senior campaign officials, volunteers, and Sanders allies” led Grim to this conclusion: “In order for a democratic socialist to win the Democratic Party’s nomination to the White House, Sanders believes he will have to do more than merely persuade a majority of the primary electorate to come out and vote for him. He’ll have to create a new electorate. ... Instead of crafting a platform to fit a coalition, the campaign is trying to create a coalition to fit his platform.”
It wasn’t just the campaign. Jacobin writer Shawn Gude described the Iowa primary as a test of “Sanders’ audacious wager” that “he could build a multiracial working-class base to power a political revolution.” Princeton professor Matt Karp, also writing in Jacobin, made the case for Sanders on the grounds that “the core of Bernie’s support comes from voters with a far more urgent material interest in the social-democratic programs he proposes, and a far clearer position in the class struggle that he has helped bring to the fore.”
This was the Sanders-left approach to the primary. And it failed.
No, Elizabeth Warren doesn’t vindicate Sanders
A second defense of Sanders and his strategy, offered by Karp and Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, is that Sanders’s success or lack thereof isn’t actually the right benchmark. The fairer move is to compare his campaign to Elizabeth Warren’s, who performed far worse.
In their view, Warren represented a competing model of how a progressive candidate could win — assembling a coalition centering educated suburban whites — that belly-flopped worse than Sanders’s class-based theory.
“Instead of trying to appeal to working class voters as a ‘blood and teeth’ brawler, Warren tried to appeal to professionals and suburbanites as a policy super genius with a cute doggo,” Bruenig writes. “This [got] Warren third place in Iowa, fourth place in New Hampshire and Nevada, and then fifth place in South Carolina.”
There are a number of problems with this argument.
First, the success or failure of Warren’s campaign says nothing about Sanders’s electoral approach. It could be that both Warren and Sanders had incorrect theories about how to win the primary; the fact that one lost doesn’t mean the other is right.
Second, the actual trajectory of Warren’s campaign belies Bruenig’s diagnosis. She rocketed to the top of the primary polls last summer and early fall, when she was running hard as the policy-oriented “plans” candidate. Her decline came after a brutal fight on her single payer position, during which she came under heavy attack from both centrists like Pete Buttigieg and observers in left media.
Warren’s health care debacle wasn’t the result of some kind of mistaken theory of who her supporters were, but rather a combination of poor messaging and sexist double standards. Her defeat, always overdetermined by the fact that Sanders’s post-2016 fame gave him a huge lead among ideologically left-wing voters, doesn’t really work as a test case for a demographic theory in the way his does.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the role of political strategy was fundamentally different in Warren’s campaign than it was in Sanders’s.
The Sanders campaign didn’t just have a theory of how it would win the primary; it elevated that theory into a central argument for the candidate himself. Sanders and his campaign admitted that their strategy was at odds with the way American politics traditionally operated; they claimed that the candidacy itself would change things. The political revolution was at the core of the campaign, as a matter of both electoral strategy and substance.
By contrast, Warren’s campaign never put a theory of turning out progressive surburbanites at the heart of its appeal. Warren didn’t center claims that she could revolutionize the nature of the primary electorate by shifting longstanding patterns of voting. Her campaign wasn’t ideologically committed to winning the suburbs in the way Sanders was committed to winning the working class, so its messaging and tactics aren’t a good benchmark for judging whether progressives can in fact win in the suburbs.
A better test of that theory is to look at the congressional elections, where candidates have to tailor their message to local demographics. The following chart, from the polling outfit Data for Progress, compares members of the Democratic Party by the demographic makeup of their district and whether they belong to one of two congressional groups — the centrist Blue Dogs or the left-wing Progressive Caucus.
You’ll see progressive candidates have won a number of seats in suburban districts but did comparatively poorly in rural ones. This is at least suggestive evidence that one kind of district is more open to a more left-wing Democratic Party than the other one is.
Sanders’s theory didn’t fail merely because he lost. It failed because of the way he lost: by losing working-class white voters to Biden and being unable to turn out youth voters in big numbers.
There’s no good reason to see the Warren campaign as a similarly strong test case for a competing theory about the progressive suburbs.
The real debate is about ideology
The most interesting contribution to this left’s Bernie postmortem genre came in Jacobin, from Paul Heideman and Hadas Thier. The piece, which discusses one of mine from April, starts by admitting what Sanders’s other defenders didn’t: that the theory of socialist politics’ unique ability to turn out downscale white voters was badly flawed.
“Much of the Left overestimated Bernie’s support with rural white voters coming out of the 2016 primary,” they write. “As Beauchamp points out, it now seems that much of this vote was driven more by antipathy toward Hillary.”
Yet Heideman and Thier do not draw what might seem like the clear conclusion: that the decades-long pattern of rural and working-class white support for left parties across Western democracies has deep roots that can’t be reversed by campaigns. Instead, they argue for putting even more effort into building a working-class movement.
Why? Because, as they put it, “there is no path to the Sanders agenda that does not run through a radicalized working class.” Essentially, they view the task of winning elections as subordinate to the task of building a left-wing working-class movement — and that Sanders’s campaign strategy reflected this ideological commitment rather than pure tactical calculation:
Today, there is no appetite for sweeping reforms like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal among the American ruling class. While in the 1960s, with a wary eye on civil rights insurgency, ruling-class institutions like the Ford Foundation promoted innovative initiatives in social policy, the ruling class of today is far less adventurous. Policies like Medicare for All or a full-employment Green New Deal will find only determined opposition from the Business Roundtable or the Brookings Institution. If these policies are to be enacted, it will be because a working-class insurgency has convinced at least some sectors of capital that they are worthwhile compromises.
This is why Bernie’s campaign prioritized mobilizing working-class voters. The idea that an electorally viable coalition could be created by bringing in working-class voters is a further development of this basic theory of American politics. If the theory is true, then it’s plain why Bernie couldn’t simply pivot to middle-class progressives. Even if doing so were to get him elected, he would be in no position to resist the corporate onslaught against his agenda.
This, to my mind, is the clearest articulation of the actual debate — about both the Sanders campaign and, more broadly, the nature of liberalism and the left in American politics.
Progressive liberals believe the Democratic Party as currently constituted is not perfect, but is a serviceable vehicle for pushing through reforms that can make people’s lives much better. Leftists, by contrast, think the party is a rotten edifice that cannot deliver meaningful reform unless and until it’s forced to by a working-class movement.
Liberals look at Sanders’s campaign and see its failure as the result of a romantic attachment to older models of political organizing, arguing for a need to adapt to an electorate where economics matters far less in determining votes than factors like partisanship, education level, and race. It doesn’t matter that much if the votes for progressive candidates come from the suburbs or the exurbs, so long as the candidates themselves support the right policies.
Leftists argue that they’re actually the hardheaded ones. Liberals are naive about capital’s willingness to allow policies like Medicare-for-all absent workers forcing them to; middle-class voters won’t, by their nature, be able to deliver the right kind of change. Prioritizing short-term electoral victory over movement-building dooms progressives to perpetual political disappointment.
This explains why so many of the defenses of Sanders’s campaign end up being Warren whataboutism or risible claims that his primary strategy wasn’t what it obviously was. The actual underlying commitments on the left here are prior to electoral politics; the real reason to believe in Bernie is not because his campaign had a successful strategy, but because the strategy must be made to succeed eventually if the US is to have any hope at all for a better future.
Settling this argument is beyond the scope of this piece. But one thing I’d like to suggest is that it’s possible these theories aren’t as obviously contradictory as they might seem.
The decline in working-class support for progressive causes is not reversible by means of short-term electoral politics. But it’s possible to imagine candidates who win via the suburbs supporting policies — like ones promoting unionization — that could end up rebuilding a working-class base for left politics down the line. Left-liberal means, socialist ends.
Trying this more indirect route, however, would require the left to more cleanly separate electoral politics from movement-building. They can keep doing the organizing and activism involved in the latter while recognizing that when it comes to the former, strategy needs to be built for the electorate rather than the other way around.
Making this strategy work will require a degree of self-reflection. That starts with admitting that Bernie Sanders did, in fact, fail.